Posts Tagged ‘Human Nature’

An ongoing conflict in sociology and anthropology exists between those who believe that human nature is competitive and brutal to the bitter end versus those who believe human nature is more cooperative and sociable, sharing resources of all types to secure the greater good. This might be recognizable to some as the perennial friction between citizen and society (alternatively, individualism and collectivism). Convincing evidence from human prehistory is difficult to uncover. Accordingly, much of the argument for competition comes from evolutionary biology, where concepts such as genetic fitness and reproductive success (and by inference, reproductive failure) are believed to motivate and justify behavior across the board. As the typical argument goes, inferior genes and males in particular who lack sexual access or otherwise fail to secure mates don’t survive into the next generation. Attributes passed onto each subsequent generation thus favor fitter, Type A brutes who out-compete weaker (read: more cooperative) candidates in an endless self-reinforcing and narrowing cycle. The alternative offered by others points to a wider gene pool based on collaboration and sharing of resources (including mates) that enables populations to thrive together better than individuals who attempt to go it alone or dominate.

Not having undertaken a formal study of anthropology (or more broadly, primatology), I can’t say how well this issue is settled in the professional, academic literature. Online, I often see explanations that are really just-so stories based on logic. What that means is that an ideal or guiding principle is described, something that just “makes sense,” and supporting evidence is then assumed or projected. For instance, we now know many of the mechanisms that function at the cellular level with respect to reproduction and genetic evolution. Those mechanisms are typically spun up the level of the organism through pure argumentation and presumed to manifest in individual behaviors. Any discontinuity between aggregate characteristics and particular instances is ignored. Questions are solved through ideation (i.e., thought experiments). However, series of if-then statements that seem plausible when confronted initially often turn out to be pure conjecture rather than evidence. That’s a just-so story.

One of the reasons we look into prehistory for evidence of our true nature (understood as biology, not sociology, handily sweeping aside the nature/nurture question) is that hunter-gatherers (HGs) lived at subsistence level for a far longer period of our evolutionary history than our comparatively brief time within the bounty of civilization. It’s only when surpluses and excesses provide something worth hoarding, monopolizing, and protecting that hierarchies arise and/or leveling mechanisms are relaxed. Leaving Babylon has a discussion of this here. Some few HG cultures survive into the 21st century, but for most of us, The Agricultural Revolution is the branching point when competition began to assert itself, displacing sharing and other egalitarian impulses. Accordingly, the dog-eat-dog competition and inequality characteristic of the modern world is regarded by many as an exaptation, not our underlying nature.



Continuing from part 1, which is altogether too much screed and frustration with Sam Harris, I now point to several analyses that support my contentions. First is an article in The Nation about the return of so-called scientific racism and speaks directly about Charles Murray, Sam Harris, and Andrew Sullivan, all of whom are embroiled in the issue. Second is an article in The Baffler about constructing arguments ex post facto to conform to conclusions motivated in advance of evidence. Most of us are familiar with the the constructed explanation, where in the aftermath of an event, pundits, press agents, and political insiders propose various explanatory narratives to gain control over what will eventually become the conventional understanding. Published reports such as the Warren Commission‘s report on the assassination of JFK is one such example, and I daresay few now believe the report and the consensus that it presents weren’t politically motivated and highly flawed. Both linked articles above are written by Edward Burmilla, who blogs at Gin and Tacos (see blogroll). Together, they paint a dismal picture of how reason and rhetoric can be corrupted despite the sheen of scientific respectability.

Third is an even more damaging article (actually a review of the new anthology Trump and the Media) in the Los Angeles Review of Books by Nicolas Carr asking the pointed question “Can Journalism Be Saved?” Admittedly, journalism is not equivalent with reason or rationalism, but it is among several professions that employ claims of objectivity, accuracy, and authority. Thus, journalism demands both attention and respect far in excess of the typical blogger (such as me) or watering-hole denizen perched atop a barstool. Consider this pullquote:

… the flaws in computational journalism can be remedied through a more open and honest accounting of its assumptions and limitations. C. W. Anderson, of the University of Leeds, takes a darker view. To much of the public, he argues, the pursuit of “data-driven objectivity” will always be suspect, not because of its methodological limits but because of its egghead aesthetics. Numbers and charts, he notes, have been elements of journalism for a long time, and they have always been “pitched to a more policy-focused audience.” With its ties to social science, computational journalism inevitably carries an air of ivory-tower elitism, making it anathema to those of a populist bent.

Computational journalism is contrasted with other varieties of journalism based on, say, personality, emotionalism, advocacy, or simply a mad rush to print (or pixels) to scoop the competition. This hyperrational approach has already revealed its failings, as Carr reports in his review.

What I’m driving at is that, despite frequent appeals to reason, authority, and accuracy (especially the quantitative sort), certain categories of argumentation fail to register on the average consumer of news and information. It’s not a question of whether arguments are right or wrong, precisely; it’s about what appeals most to those paying even a modest bit of attention. And the primary appeal for most (I judge) isn’t reason. Indeed, reason is swept aside handily when a better, um, reason for believing something appears. If one has done the difficult work of acquiring critical thinking and reasoning skills, it can be quite the wake-up call when others fail to behave according to reason, such as with acting against enlightened self-interest. The last presidential election was a case in point.

Circling back so something from an earlier blog, much of human cognition is based on mere sufficiency: whatever is good enough in the moment gets nominated then promoted to belief and/or action. Fight, flight, or freeze is one example. Considered evaluation and reason are not even factors. Snap judgments, gut feelings, emotional resonances, vibes, heuristics, and Gestalts dominate momentary decision-making, and in the absence of convincing countervailing information (if indeed one is even vulnerable to reason, which would be an unreasonable assumption), action is reinforced and suffices as belief.

Yet more in part 3 to come.

I’m currently reading Go Wild by John Ratey and Richard Manning. It has some rather astounding findings on offer. One I’ll draw out is that the human brain evolved not for thinking, as one might imagine, but for coordinating complex physiological movements:

… even the simplest of motions — a flick of a finger or a turn of the hand to pick up a pencil — is maddeningly complex and requires coordination and computational power beyond electronics abilities. For this you need a brain. One of our favorites quotes on this matter comes from the neuroscientists Rodolfo LlinĂ¡s: “That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internationalization of movement.” [p. 100]

Almost all the computation is unconsciousness, or maybe preconscious, and it’s learned over a period of years in infancy and early childhood (for basic locomotion) and then supplemented throughout life (for skilled motions, e.g., writing cursive or typing). Moreover, those able to move with exceptional speed, endurance, power, accuracy, and/or grace are admired and sometimes rewarded in our culture. The obvious example is sports. Whether league sports with wildly overcompensated athletes, Olympic sports with undercompensated athletes, or combat sports with a mixture of both, thrill attaches to watching someone move effectively within the rule-bound context of the sport. Other examples include dancers, musicians, circus artists, and actors who specialize in physical comedy and action. Each develops specialized movements that are graceful and beautiful, which Ratey and Manning write may also account for nonsexual appreciation and fetishization of the human body, e.g., fashion models, glammed-up actors, and nude photography.

I’m being silly saying that jocks figgered it first, of course. A stronger case could probably be made for warriors in battle, such as a skilled swordsman. But it’s jocks who are frequently rewarded all out of proportion with others who specialize in movement. True, their genetics and training enable a relatively brief career (compared to, say, surgeons or pianists) before abilities ebb away and a younger athlete eclipses them. But a fundamental lack of equivalence with artisans and artists is clear, whose value lies less with their bodies than with outputs their movements produce.

Regarding computational burdens, consider the various mechanical arms built for grasping and moving objects, some of them quite large. Mechanisms (frame and hydraulics substituting for bone and muscle) themselves are quite complex, but they’re typically controlled by a human operator rather than automated. (Exceptions abound, but they’re highly specialized, such as circuit board manufacture or textile production.) More recently, robotics demonstrate considerable advancement in locomotion without a human operator, but they’re also narrowly focused in comparison with the flexibility of motion a human body readily possesses. Further, in the case of flying drones, robots operate in wide open space, or, in the case of those designed to move like dogs or insects, use 4+ legs for stability. The latter are typically built to withstand quite a lot of bumping and jostling. Upright bipedal motion is still quite clumsy in comparison with humans, excepting perhaps wheeled robots that obviously don’t move like humans do.

Curiously, the movie Pacific Rim (sequel just out) takes notice of the computational or cognitive difficulty of coordinated movement. To operate giant robots needed to fight Godzilla-like interdimensional monsters, two mind-linked humans control a battle robot. Maybe it’s a simple coincidence — a plot device to position humans in the middle of the action (and robot) rather than killing from a distance — such as via drone or clone — or maybe not. Hollywood screenwriters are quite clever at exploiting all sorts material without necessarily divulging the source of inspiration. It’s art imitating life, knowingly or not.

In the sense that a picture is worth a thousand words, this cartoon caught my immediate attention (for attribution, taken from here):


Search engines reveal quite a few treatments of the central conflict depicted here, including other versions of essentially the same cartoon. Doubtful anything I could say would add much to the body of analysis and advice already out there. Still, the image called up a whole series of memories for me rather quickly, the primary one being the (only) time I vacationed in Las Vegas about a decade ago.


Oddly, there is no really good antonym for perfectionism. Suggestions include sloppiness, carelessness, and disregard. I’ve settled on approximation, which carries far less moral weight. I raise the contrast between perfectionism and approximation because a recent study published in Psychological Bulletin entitled “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016″ makes an interesting observation. Here’s the abstract:

From the 1980s onward, neoliberal governance in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom has emphasized competitive individualism and people have seemingly responded, in kind, by agitating to perfect themselves and their lifestyles. In this study, the authors examine whether cultural changes have coincided with an increase in multidimensional perfectionism in college students over the last 27 years. Their analyses are based on 164 samples and 41,641 American, Canadian, and British college students, who completed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (Hewitt & Flett, 1991) between 1989 and 2016 (70.92% female, Mage = 20.66). Cross-temporal meta-analysis revealed that levels of self-oriented perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism, and other-oriented perfectionism have linearly increased. These trends remained when controlling for gender and between-country differences in perfectionism scores. Overall, in order of magnitude of the observed increase, the findings indicate that recent generations of young people perceive that others are more demanding of them, are more demanding of others, and are more demanding of themselves.

The notion of perfection, perfectness, perfectibility, etc. has a long tortured history in philosophy, religion, ethics, and other domains I won’t even begin to unpack. From the perspective of the above study, let’s just say that the upswing in perfectionism is about striving to achieve success, however one assesses it (education, career, relationships, lifestyle, ethics, athletics, aesthetics, etc.). The study narrows its subject group to college students (at the outset of adult life) between 1989 and 2016 and characterizes the social milieu as neoliberal, hyper-competitive, meritocratic, and pressured to succeed in a dog-eat-dog environment. How far back into childhood results of the study (agitation) extend is a good question. If the trope about parents obsessing and competing over preschool admission is accurate (may be just a NYC thang), then it goes all the way back to toddlers. So much for (lost) innocence purchased and perpetuated through late 20th- and early 21st-century affluence. I suspect college students are responding to awareness of two novel circumstances: (1) likelihood they will never achieve levels of success comparable to their own parents, especially financial (a major reversal of historical trends) and (2) recognition that to best enjoy the fruits of life, a quiet, reflective, anonymous, ethical, average life is now quite insufficient. Regarding the second of these, we are inundated by media showing rich celebrities (no longer just glamorous actors/entertainers) balling out of control, and onlookers are enjoined to “keep up.” The putative model is out there, unattainable for most but often awarded by randomness, undercutting the whole enterprise of trying to achieve perfection.


The phrase fight or flight is often invoked to describe an instinctual response to threat to survival or wellbeing, especially physical attack. The response is typically accompanied by a rush of adrenaline that overwhelms the rational mind and renders preplanning moot. The phrase is among the most ubiquitous examples of a false binary: a limiting choice between two options. It’s false precisely because other options exist and further complicated by actual responses to threat arguably falling within more than one category. Other examples of false binaries include with/against us, Republican/Democrat, tradition/progress, and religious/secular. Some would include male/female, but that’s a can of worms these days, so I’d prefer to leave it alone. With respect to fight/flight, options might be better characterized as fight/flight/freeze/feign/fail, with acknowledgment that category boundaries are unclear. Let me characterize each in turn.

Fight. Aggressive types may default to fighting in response to provocation. With combat training, otherwise submissive types may become more confident and thus willing to fight. Of course, level of threat and likelihood of success and/or survival figure into when one decides to engage, even with snap judgments. Some situations also admit no other response: gotta fight.

Flight. When available, evading direct confrontation may be preferable to risking bodily harm. High threat level often makes flight a better strategy than fighting, meaning flight is not always a mark of cowardice. Flight is sometimes moot, as well. For instance, humans can’t outrun bears (or wolves, or dogs, pick your predator), so if one retains one’s wits in the face of a bear charge, another response might be better, though reason may have already departed the scene.

Freeze. Freezing in place might be one of two (or more) things: paralysis in the face of threat or psychological denial of what’s happening. Both are something to the effect, “this can’t possibly be happening, so I won’t even respond.” An event so far outside of normal human experience, such as a fast-moving natural disaster (e.g., a tsunami) or the slow-moving disaster of ecocide perpetrated by humans both fail to provoke active response.

Feign. Some animals are known to fake death or bluff a stronger ability to fight than is true. Feigning death, or playing possum, might work in some instances, such as mass shooting where perpetrators are trained on live targets. Facing a charging bear might just intimidate the bear enough to turn its attentions elsewhere. Probably doesn’t work at all with reptiles.

Fail. If the threat is plainly insurmountable, especially with natural disasters and animal attacks, one response may be to simply succumb without resistance. Victims of near-drowning often report being overtaken with bliss in the moment of acceptance. During periods of war and genocide, I suspect that many victims also recognized that, in those immortal words, resistance is futile. Giving up may be a better way to face death than experiencing desperation until one’s dying breath.

Bullying is one example of threat most are forced to confront in childhood, and responses are frequently based on the physical size of the bully vs. the one being bullied. Also, the severity of bullying may not be so dire that only instinctive responses are available; one can deploy a bit of strategy. Similarly, since it’s in the news these days, sexual assault, typically men against women (but not always — Catholic priest pederasts are the obvious counterexample), the response of a surprising number of women is to succumb rather than face what might be even worse outcomes. One can debate whether that is freezing, feigning, or failing. Doesn’t have to be only one.

Twice in the last month I stumbled across David Benatar, an anti-natalist philosopher, first in a podcast with Sam Harris and again in a profile of him in The New Yorker. Benatar is certainly an interesting fellow, and I suspect earnest in his beliefs and academic work, but I couldn’t avoid shrugging as he gets caught in the sort of logical traps that plague hyperintellectual folks. (Sam Harris is prone to the same problem.) The anti-natalist philosophy in a nutshell is finding, after tallying the pros and cons of living (sometimes understood as happiness or enjoyment versus suffering), that on balance, it would probably be better never to have lived. Benatar doesn’t apply the finding retroactively by suggesting folks end their lives sooner rather than later, but he does recommend that new life should not be brought into the world — an interdiction almost no parent would consider for more than a moment.

The idea that we are born against our will, never asked whether we wanted life in the first place, is an obvious conundrum but treated as a legitimate line of inquiry in Benatar’s philosophy. The kid who throws the taunt “I never asked to be born!” to a parent in the midst of an argument might score an emotional hit, but there is no logic to the assertion. Language is full of logic traps like this, such as “an infinity of infinities” (or multiverse), “what came before the beginning?” or “what happens after the end?” Most know to disregard the former, but entire religions are based on seeking the path to the (good) afterlife as if conjuring such a proposition manifests it in reality. (more…)

This Savage Love column got my attention. As with Dear Abby, Ask Marylin, or indeed any advice column, I surmise that questions are edited for publication. Still, a couple minor usage errors attracted my eye, which I can let go without further chastising comment. More importantly, question and answer both employ a type of Newspeak commonplace among those attuned to identity politics. Those of us not struggling with identity issues may be less conversant with this specialized language, or it could be a generational thing. Coded speech is not unusual within specialized fields of endeavor. My fascination with nomenclature and neologisms makes me pay attention, though I’m not typically an adopter of hip new coin.

The Q part of Q&A never actually asks a question but provides context to suggest or extrapolate one, namely, “please advise me on my neuro-atypicality.” (I made up that word.) While the Q acknowledges that folks on the autism spectrum are not neurotypical, the word disability is put in quotes (variously, scare quotes, air quotes, or irony quotes), meaning that it is not or should not be considered a real or true disability. Yet the woman acknowledges her own difficulty with social signaling. The A part of Q&A notes a marked sensitivity to social justice among those on the spectrum, acknowledges a correlation with nonstandard gender identity (or is it sexual orientation?), and includes a jibe that standard advice is to mimic neurotypical behaviors, which “tend to be tediously heteronormative and drearily vanilla-centric.” The terms tediously, drearily , and vanilla push unsubtly toward normalization and acceptance of kink and aberrance, as does Savage Love in general. I wrote about this general phenomenon in a post called “Trans is the New Chic.”

Whereas I have no hesitation to express disapproval of shitty people, shitty things, and shitty ideas, I am happy to accept many mere differences as not caring two shits either way. This question asks about something fundamental human behavior: sexual expression. Everyone needs an outlet, and outliers (atypicals, nonnormatives, kinksters, transgressors, etc.) undoubtedly have more trouble than normal folks. Unless living under a rock, you’ve no doubt heard and/or read theories from various quarters that character distortion often stems from sexual repression or lack of sexual access, which describes a large number of societies historical and contemporary. Some would include the 21st-century U.S. in that category, but I disagree. Sure, we have puritanical roots, recent moral panic over sexual buffoonery and crimes, and a less healthy sexual outlook than, say, European cultures, but we’re also suffused in licentiousness, Internet pornography, and everyday seductions served up in the media via advertising, R-rated cinema, and TV-MA content. It’s a decidedly mixed bag.

Armed with a lay appreciation of sociology, I can’t help but to observe that humans are a social species with hierarchies and norms, not as rigid or prescribed perhaps as with insect species, but nonetheless possessing powerful drives toward consensus, cooperation, and categorization. Throwing open the floodgates to wide acceptance of aberrant, niche behaviors strikes me as swimming decidedly upstream in a society populated by a sizable minority of conservatives mightily offended by anything falling outside the heteronormative mainstream. I’m not advocating either way but merely observing the central conflict.

All this said, the thing that has me wondering is whether autism isn’t itself an adaptation to information overload commencing roughly with the rise of mass media in the early 20th century. If one expects that the human mind is primarily an information processor and the only direction is to process ever more information faster and more accurately than in the past, well, I have some bad news: we’re getting worse at it, not better. So while autism might appear to be maladaptive, filtering out useless excess information might unintuitively prove to be adaptive, especially considering the disposition toward analytical, instrumental thinking exhibited by those on the spectrum. How much this style of mind is valued in today’s world is an open question. I also don’t have an answer to the nature/nurture aspect of the issue, which is whether the adaptation/maladaptation is more cultural or biological. I can only observe that it’s on the rise, or at least being recognized and diagnosed more frequently.

I watched a documentary on Netflix called Jim & Andy (2017) that provides a glimpse behind the scenes of the making of Man on the Moon (1999) where Jim Carrey portrays Andy Kaufman. It’s a familiar story of art imitating life (or is it life imitating art?) as Carrey goes method and essentially channels Kaufman and Kaufman’s alter ego Tony Clifton. A whole gaggle of actors played earlier incarnations of themselves in Man on the Moon and appeared as themselves (without artifice) in Jim & Andy, adding another weird dimension to the goings on. Actors losing themselves in roles and undermining their sense of self is hardly novel. Regular people lose themselves in their jobs, hobbies, media hype, glare of celebrity, etc. all the time. From an only slightly broader perspective, we’re all merely actors playing roles, shifting subtly or dramatically based on context. Shakespeare observed it centuries ago. However, the documentary points to a deeper sense of unreality precisely because Kaufman’s principal shtick was to push discomfiting jokes/performances beyond the breaking point, never dropping the act to let his audience in on the joke or provide closure. It’s a manifestation of what I call the Disorientation Protocol.


Societies sometimes employ leveling mechanisms to keep the high and mighty from getting too, well, high and mighty or to pull them back down when they nonetheless manage to scale untenable heights. Some might insist that the U.S. breakaway from the British crown and aristocratic systems in the Revolutionary Era was, among other things, to establish an egalitarian society in accordance with liberal philosophy of the day. This is true to a point, since we in the U.S. don’t have hereditary aristocratic titles, but a less charitable view is that the Founders really only substituted the landed gentry, which to say themselves, for the tyrannical British. Who scored worse on the tyranny scale is a matter of debate, especially when modern sensibilities are applied to historical practices. Although I don’t generally care for such hindsight moralizing, it’s uncontroversial that the phrase “all men are created equal” (from the U.S. Declaration of Independence) did not then apply, for instance, to slaves and women. We’re still battling to establish equality (a level playing field) among all men and women. For SJWs, the fight has become about equality of outcome (e.g., quotas), which is a perversion of the more reasonable and achievable equality of opportunity.

When and where available resources were more limited, say, in agrarian or subsistence economies, the distance or separation between top and bottom was relatively modest. In a nonresource economy, where activity is financialized and decoupled from productivity (Bitcoin, anyone?), the distance between top and bottom can grow appallingly wide. I suspect that an economist could give a better explanation of this phenomenon than I can, but my suspicion is that it has primarily to do with fiat currency (money issued without sound backing such as precious metals), expansion of credit, and creation of arcane instruments of finance, all of which give rise to an immense bureaucracy of administrative personnel to create, manage, and manipulate them.

The U.S. tax structure of the 1950s — steep taxes levied against the highest earners — was a leveling mechanism. Whether intentionally corrective of the excesses of the Jazz Age is beyond my knowledge. However, that progressive tax structure has been dismantled (“leveled,” one might say), shifting from progressive to regressive and now to transgressive. Regressive is where more or disproportionate tax responsibility is borne by those already struggling to satisfy their basic needs. Transgressive is outright punishment of those who fail to earn enough, as though the whip functions as a spur to success. Indeed, as I mentioned in the previous blog post, the mood of the country right now is to abandon and blame those whom financial success has eluded. Though the term debtor’s prison belongs to a bygone era, we still have them, as people are imprisoned over nonviolent infractions such as parking tickets only to have heavy, additional, administrative fines and fees levied on them, holding them hostage to payment. That’s victimizing the victim, pure and simple.

At the other end of the scale, the superrich ascend a hierarchy that is absurdly imbalanced since leveling mechanisms are no longer present. Of course, disdain of the nouveau riche exists, primarily because social training does not typically accompany amassing of new fortunes, allowing many of that cohort to be amazingly gauche and intransigently proud of it (names withheld). That disdain is especially the prerogative of those whose wealth is inherited, not the masses, but is not an effective leveling mechanism. If one is rich, famous, and charming enough, indulgences for bad or criminal behavior are commonplace. For instance, those convicted of major financial crime in the past decade are quite few, whereas beneficiaries (multimillionaires) of looting of the U.S. Treasury are many. One very recent exception to indulgences is the wave of people being accused of sexual misconduct, but I daresay the motivation is unrelated to that of standard leveling mechanisms. Rather, it’s moral panic resulting from strains being felt throughout society having to do with sexual orientation and identity.

When the superrich ascend into the billionaire class, they tend to behave supranationally: buying private islands or yachts outside the jurisdiction or control of nation states, becoming nominal residents of the most advantageous tax havens, and shielding themselves from the rabble. While this brand of anarchism may be attractive to some and justified to others, detaching from social hierarchies and abandoning or ignoring others in need once one’s own fortunes are secure is questionable behavior to say the least. Indeed, those of such special character are typically focal points of violence and mayhem when the lives of the masses become too intolerable. That target on one’s back can be ignored or forestalled for a long time, perhaps, but the eventuality of nasty blowback is virtually guaranteed. That’s the final leveling mechanism seen throughout history.